The Unpleasant Effects of Comparisons

Comparisons can serve as motivation, they can also lead to feelings of misery. Comparing ourselves to others often influences our perceptions of fairness, success, and satisfaction. It is crucial to be mindful of the negative impact that constant comparisons can have on our well-being and strive for a balanced perspective.

Josh Ether

3/8/20193 min read

While comparisons can be motivating, they can also have negative consequences. Frans de Waal's research on capuchin monkeys sheds light on the negative aspects of comparisons. In his study, clever capuchin monkeys were taught to use stones as a form of currency. They eagerly exchanged stones for rewards like cucumber slices. However, when they observed a neighboring monkey receiving a superior reward, such as a grape, their behavior changed dramatically.

In a video depicting de Waal's study, two capuchin monkeys are seen side by side, exchanging stones. One monkey receives a cucumber, while the other is rewarded with a grape. Three significant observations can be made from this video. First, the monkey receiving the cucumber is intensely focused on observing its neighbor's reward. Second, the monkey becomes visibly upset. And third, this dissatisfaction leads the monkey to refuse participation by throwing the cucumber, rendering the stone worthless. The monkey's perception of the deal changes entirely when it realizes that another monkey is receiving a better reward. This phenomenon is not limited to monkeys; it extends to humans as well.

Consider the case of Scott Crabtree, an individual working for a tech firm. He was content with his job and found it motivating until a new employee was recruited. This new hire joined the company with a comparable salary to Scott's, achieved after years of hard work. Scott became irritated and upset by this comparison and eventually quit his job. He then took on a position as a Chief Happiness Officer at a different firm. Just like the capuchin monkeys, Scott couldn't bear the thought of someone else receiving a seemingly better deal. Consequently, he sought happiness elsewhere.

Moreover, comparisons can affect groups as well. An example of this is American Airlines, which was facing financial difficulties and negotiating concessions with its unions, including pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, and mechanics. The unions agreed to significant concessions amounting to $1.8 billion. However, at the same time, the company was offering retention bonuses to its executives totaling $41 million. When the unions discovered this information, they were furious. The concessions they had accepted suddenly seemed unacceptable in light of the executives' bonuses. The unions reacted by firing their negotiator, retracting the concessions, and returning to the negotiating table.

These examples demonstrate the significance of comparisons in our lives. Whether it's evaluating the worth of a stone or assessing the fairness of a salary, our answers depend on comparisons. Moving on to the United Kingdom, we can examine the case of two brothers, David and Ed Miliband, who were both members of Parliament. When they competed for the leadership of the Labor Party, David initially appeared to be the favorite, with a slight lead in the early voting rounds. However, in the fourth round, Ed emerged as the winner by a narrow margin. This result fractured their relationship, and David felt the weight of constant unfavorable comparison with his younger brother. He eventually left Parliament and even the United Kingdom, seeking work at a nonprofit organization in New York.

The harmful effects of comparisons can also be observed in the context of artificial twins, where individuals adopt someone of similar age as their biological child. While the idea of having a built-in playmate and shared responsibilities may seem appealing, adoption experts warn against the potential negative consequences. Artificial twins often experience constant comparison, leading to toxic relationships as one twin may outpace the other in various aspects of development. Many agencies actively discourage or prohibit the adoption of artificial twins due to the corrosive nature of these comparisons.

Another intriguing phenomenon related to comparisons is the experience of doing better but feeling worse. Abel Kiviat, a silver medalist in the 1912 Olympics, exemplifies this paradox. Despite achieving an impressive second place, he remained dissatisfied, constantly haunted by the counterfactual thought of what could have happened if he had just run a bit faster to secure first place. Remarkably, this dissatisfaction is not unique to Abel but rather a common occurrence among silver medalists. Studies have even identified a phenomenon termed the "silver medal face," as silver medalists often appear visibly unhappy compared to their bronze medal counterparts. The upward comparison to the gold medalists creates a stark contrast, fueling their discontent. In contrast, bronze medalists are relieved to have escaped the fate of not winning any medal at all, resulting in their relatively happier expressions.